As you get older, your body goes through changes that can impact your oral health if you don’t manage it well
Reduced mobility, fear of pain, and cost can be the main barriers to older people visiting dentists
You should be cleaning your teeth twice a day and flossing when possible
If left untreated, these dental issues can lead to really serious physical and mental health issues.
Dr Prath Bala, Head Dentist at Aged Care Dentistry in Perth, Western Australia, says it is important that older people upkeep their oral health in later years as poor dental hygiene can really impact your quality of life.
He wants older people, and aged care staff, to have a better understanding and education on dental health as problems in the mouth tend to be forgotten or ignored.
A changing body
As you age, your body isn’t able to produce as much saliva and this can have an effect on your oral health as saliva creates a protective barrier in your mouth.
“We need saliva in our mouth, it is a protective mechanism. When you are younger, you have a lot of it, when you are older, you have less of it,” explains Dr Bala.
When you consume food or drink, your saliva assists in washing away food particles and keeping your teeth clean.
But in an ageing body where you produce less saliva, it can result in more food being stuck in between your teeth and around the mouth or not washing away leftover sugar – resulting in decay.
Dr Bala adds that older people tend to take more medication for their health issues, but medication can also reduce the amount of saliva your body produces.
Without the natural protection in your mouth, it can lead to a cascade of problems, which is why it’s critical that you keep on top of your dental health.
Importance of dental hygiene in your later years
According to Dr Bala, there are three important reasons why dental hygiene is important in your later years – and they are all to do with quality of life.
“You wouldn’t think it but older people are just very keen on keeping their teeth and improving their smile and ability to eat,” says Dr Bala.
Food is a big reason for keeping your teeth healthy. Being able to eat and eat well is at the top of the list for many older people, which is why you should maintain your dental health.
To have that ability taken away by dental health issues can be really upsetting, especially if you can’t eat your favourite meals.
Dr Bala shares the story of a client of his that was sick of eating modified food and wanted to sink her teeth into a Whopper Cheese from HungryJacks. He says her remaining teeth were rotten and painful for her, so they removed the few remaining teeth she had and created false teeth for her.
“She showed me a picture that her carer took, of her at HungryJacks eating the Whopper Cheese. It was just pure enjoyment and happiness in her face. I still remember it, it has crystallised in my brain.”
Communicating is another big reason for upkeep your dental health, whether that be with carers, loved ones or friends. Being able to talk to people and socialise is really important to the health and wellbeing of an older person and poor dental hygiene can impact that.
Lastly, smiling. Dr Bala says so many older people enjoy smiling and being able to smile at people. But when their teeth get worse, because of underlying dental issues, it can result in older people not wanting to smile out of embarrassment.
“When you have inadequate oral hygiene/dental hygiene, it can lead to really rapid tooth loss and deterioration and that can affect those three things I talked about – eating, communicating, and smiling,” says Dr Bala.
“And then when you throw dementia in there, the person’s actual ability to communicate pain or discomfort diminishes.
“It’s often through a dental examination we uncover all these underlying oral infections, broken teeth, ill fitting dentures – you name it, there are a myriad of problems. It also affects their weight and their ability to eat, their quality of life and ability to communicate and smile.”
Barriers to oral health for older people
Older people in aged care, or even in the community, face a range of barriers that may prevent them, or make it difficult, to access their local dentist.
Dr Bala says mobility, fear of pain, and cost, are the biggest barriers he seems to come across when it comes to older patients.
“People who usually go every six months to Dr Jones down the road, they can’t do that anymore. They either don’t have a licence or it is very difficult to drive or get someone to take them to the dentist. So, as a result, you get checkups that are pushed off,” says Dr Bala.
“[The second barrier] is a fear of pain. Most older people have experienced some level of fear or pain at the dentist, particularly in the early days of dentistry where it was ineffective or no anesthetic for dental procedures, including extractions.
“I mean the horror stories I have been told are things of nightmares and unsurprisingly many are reluctant to see the dentist again. Fortunately, with modern-day dentistry, you have many tools and effective anesthetic, and sedation, to avoid trauma and fear.”
The cost of going to see the dentist is a barrier as well since it is a specialist service, however, Dr Bala finds that the first two barriers, mobility and fear of pain, tend to eclipse the cost issue.
To help older people look after their oral health, Dr Bala has shared his top five tips for dental hygiene.
Top five tips for dental hygiene
- Brush twice a day and floss whenever possible
Dr Bala recommends using an electric toothbrush as they provide a better clean and are easier for older people to hold while cleaning their teeth. If people don’t like the vibration from the electric toothbrush, he would recommend the Collis-Curve Toothbrush over a traditional toothbrush.
- Rinse your mouth out or drink a glass of water after snacking on food or drink or after a meal
Drinking water after a meal or after eating and drinking can help wash away any leftover food or sugars that may be trapped in your teeth or sticking around your mouth.
- Leave your dentures out at night time
Wearing dentures while you sleep can be dangerous and lead to different dental issues. This includes affecting your saliva, resulting in dental plaque buildup, and even causing thrush in your mouth!
- Try to see your dentist at least once a year
If you can see your dentist more than once a year, then that will help you pick up on any dental issues sooner. Even if you have dentures, you should still be seeing a dentist to have them check your dentures for any fitting issues or if there is irritation on the gums.
Replace or avoid eating sugary foods or snacking too often
Since your body no longer provides consistent salivation, avoiding very sugary snacks can reduce your likelihood of getting tooth decay. Dr Bala says that as you get older, you naturally lose receptive taste buds, this can lead to many people adding extra sugar to taste it. He recommends being careful with using sugar, especially in coffees and teas, or switching to plant-based sweeteners and lollies instead.
What is your best dental hygiene tip? Tell us in the comments below.